The panel was held at Book Expo on Friday afternoon, and was hosted by Marvel’s Sven Larsen, and featured Garth Ennis, Frank Tieri, and Anthony Del Col.
Asked how they choose what areas of history to work with given the vast scope of possibilities, Ennis said that he gravitated toward modern war stories as a young person and is still attracted to that subject matter.
Anthony Del Col said that having heard about the “legend” behind Hitler possibly fathering a child, it struck him as a story to work on for Son of Hitler (forthcoming from Image Comics).
Asked about their approach to research for graphic novels that are historical fiction, Ennis said that it’s “vital”. He’s been reading military history all his life, and all that research is already “done” because he chooses stories to work on from things he’s read about.
For his book about Dreaming Eagles, the story of the Tuskagee Airmen, he was lucky enough to be able to fly inside the aircraft, or similar aircraft, related to the story. It gave him very physical insights into restrictions in view and mobility that helped shape the story.
Tieri said that research is “fun” for him. He worked on a story including Al Capone, bringing him into a Wolverine story with the idea that Wolverine was at the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and survived. There’s so much “opportunity” when it comes to historical elements, and sometimes it’s just a matter of picking out “where things fit” right.
Del Col said that in college he always found elective courses the most fun, and that kind of “deep dive” into an area that interests you is the same in comics research. Working on Assassin’s Creed: Origins comics allowed him to look into the time period around the time of the assassination of Caesar. Looking at stadiums, aqueducts, and more, helped along by Ubisoft, opened up new locations and settings, and also helped provide the artist with the reference they would need. These kinds of details become part of the story.
Asked about how they find collaborators to work with, Ennis said finding someone who has “genuine enthusiasm” for the period is really important. Tieri commented on differences of style between artists suiting different types of stories as well, from “grim and gritty” to realism. It certainly helps if the artist is “into it” in the same way, he added. Del Col agreed that certain artists excel in certain genres, and historical fiction isn’t necessarily a genre in comics.
Instead, you have spy stories, or action, and various types of stories, and that’s where the artwork really sells that approach, Del Col said. Passion is important, he agreed, since there’s so much research involved for the artwork, and you can tell in an artist’s work if they feel passionate about the subject matter.
Asked if he gets any “push back” on Kill Shakespeare from historical “purists”, Del Col said he does a bit, but the adventure approach to the era and literature should be obvious to readers, something that’s intended to inspire curiosity and lead readers to explore more literature and history from the Elizabethan era.
“It’s not a documentary”, Tieri reminded. It’s fiction. So, you fit in historical events, but you take a “swerve” when you need to. Ennis said that sometimes it’s “wrong and disrespectful” to take real historical human beings and portray them speaking a writer’s dialog, because how does the writer know enough to do that faithfully? Instead, Ennis creates fictional composites and occasionally refers to real people. This “frees” him “up” to say what he feels he needs to say in the comic.
Del Col said that one of the most exciting aspects of this work is “weaving the fiction with the fact”. He treats all his stories almost “mathematically”, looking at dates and places, and weaving around those fixed points.
In Ennis’ case, he already knew the Punisher was a Vietnam Vet and worked with that, making it more “integral”. He used it to explore the point at which America, historically, became an “imperial aggressor”, in a way, and that becomes Frank Castle’s experience by way of metaphor. Castle’s life goes wrong and he spends his life caught up in a war that won’t end, for instance.
Del Col liked the use of the term “metaphor”. People think of sci-fi as a great metaphor for readers, but Del Col thinks historical moments can be viewed as a metaphor of what’s happening today. Looking at Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, using the Salem Witch Trials for instance, as a metaphor for communism and the Red Scare during the author’s life.
Ennis started off doing war stories by working at DC Comics, taking some of their more historical characters from DC war comics, giving them a “spin” while stripping away “fantastic elements”, and winding up with workable war stories. When this seemed successful enough in DC’s eyes, they let him do original war stories after that. And many, many more followed. There’s “always a home for this stuff”, he said, and it will “survive”, which is the most important thing to him.
Tieri was really happy to learn that that Marvel Hercules series he worked on was used in the classroom as a teaching tool. Ennis agreed that that’s “wonderful”. Ennis once met someone who’s father had served in the military, and was shown one of Ennis’ comics, and was gratified how close the comic came to his own experience. And hearing that meant a great deal to Ennis.
Del Col said that his books have always “targeted” the educational market. Even working on Assassin’s Creed was something he loved because it was gameplay with an “educational component”. In anything he does, Del Col said, he wants to “entertain and enlighten” and doing both is great.
Coming up, Ennis will be doing a comic with the Naval Institute for the Dead Reckoning imprint and thinking about another Vietnam Punisher series.
Tieri will be doing a Die Hard story 30 years later with flashbacks to the past.
Del Col will be diving into historical fiction for an audio drama set in England in the 1700s and hopes to announce more about that soon.